sustainable transport

On Wednesday night Bec came home late from work. We watched a bit of TV together. On Lateline, there was a report about the booming price of petrol. It’s now pushing $1.40 a litre, and there was the treasurer, looking somewhat amazed that the hike in transport costs hasn’t really resulted (yet) in a general lift in inflation. “So far, so good,” he said to the camera.
Bec: “We really are going to run those oil supplies down to nothing before we start thinking about different energy sources, aren’t we?”
Me: “Well, it’s just human nature. For instance, in theory it should not be difficult for us to predict when we are going to run out of toilet paper or washing powder at home. But we always do, we run em down to nothing and then there’s a minor crisis before we get around to doing anything about it. The oil issue is more or less the same thing on a larger scale…”

Sure enough, yesterday, my dirty clothes were piled high in the basket, and my stubble was moving from “designer” to “vagrant”. There was nothing for it. It was time for a visit to the chemist. I got washing powder and shaving cream. To show how highly evolved I am, I even splashed out on toilet paper, although we still have a roll and a half to go.

I walked west down Canterbury, past the old Roller Rink, to look in the window of the barber shop. Maybe, I thought, I could kill two birds with one stone and have a shave in there. It’s a great old fashioned joint called “The Locals Barber Shop,” so I figure I qualify. But there were already two locals waiting for the solitary barber. My shave will have to wait for another day. I picked up some bananas from K.Jim, and headed back up the road. Outside Sweet Belem, two “young people” were playing chess and eating pastry. They looked up and said Hi!, and asked if I’d like to join them. Sure, I said.

“I was just saying,” said the one whose name turned out to be Heather, “That one of the things I like is meeting strangers.” Tully, her companion, agreed. They were playing a local variation on chess. In their version, each time a move is made, you have to declare something that you like. And it can’t just be the name of a TV show or some pre-packaged product, it has to be something about it that you like, some connection you yourself have to the object of liking. Needless to say, I liked them both immediately. I settled in to watch them play.

The other pecularity about this game was that they were playing it sideways. Instead of the more aggressive frontal-attack style, Tully and Heather were experimenting with a more detatched, lateral approach. That way, you could see both sides, and appreciate the whole game, rather than being so partisan. We ordered second coffees, and Heather paid for them, seeing as I had (conveniently) just shelled out my last sheckles on toiletries.

Heather was taking a “mental health day” from her job as a sustainable transport planner. Tully is a procrastinating psychology student. He’s got two rather large essays to work on. One is about reading cognition and dyslexia. Something about how you can be: a good reader but a poor speller; a good reader and a good speller; a poor reader and a poor speller (obviously); but it’s extremely rare to find a good speller who is not also a good reader. It’s all to do with how you see words as shapes. Yes! I said. I love this kind of talk. I can spot a spelling mistake at twenty paces – but there are others (like my friend Anne) who are even more spelling-fanatical than me.

(Incidentally, if you spot any spellos, misplaced apostrophes, or innappropriate commas in this electronic tome, be sure to let me know. It really does irritate me, and I promise not to be offended).

Tully’s other essay was on a subject a lot heavier, perhaps more to do with mental health, but I forget what.

It turns out that Heather and Tully live just a stone’s throw away, right next door to Rohan! When we did our Petersham Pub Crawl, two Saturdays ago, they had been throwing a party. Stuart had been keen to crash it, and in retrospect, we were wrong not to have trusted his party instinct. Apparently, at this shindig, there were two boxes at the door: one with boys’ names and one with girls’. You had to dip your hand into the box of your choice, and draw out your new name to be used for the rest of the evening – they were all old fashioned ones like Elfriede and Gertrude and Maximillion (I just made these up, but you get the gist). We really should have gone to this party, instead of ending the night at the moderately depressing, and almost entirely empty Livingstone Hotel.

I enlisted my new friends to the Petersham South Champions Bowling team.

Later, I called in with a pumpkin for their house. Only Heather was home. She showed me around their huge old terrace. Six people live there. Their dates of birth were listed on the fridge in whiteboard marker. I was shocked. They were ALL born in the ’80s. Upstairs, there’s a great view of Canterbury Road. We stood there for a moment, admiring Rohan’s chili and capsicum plants on the next door balcony. I fired off a shot into the afternoon sun.

We headed for the north side to throw a frisbee. I took Heather past the bowling club. Oh, she said, that lawn looks amazing, I’d love to turn cartwheels on it. Let’s do it then! I replied. (By “let’s” of course I meant “you”). There was a man with two metal watering cans on the upper green. Heather was a bit worried he’d get cross at the cartwheel shenanigans. We decided to go ask him if it’d be ok. His name was Peter. He’s not the greenskeeper, but he maintains the beautiful succulents and flowers around the perimeter of the green. Peter’s been living in Petersham for years. He said the area has changed a lot recently, and frankly, he wasn’t all that keen on the way it’s changed. Used to be you could buy flowers, hardware, all sorts of things, up on Canterbury Road. Now its all chicken. Good if you like spicy chicken, Heather offered cheerfully. I don’t, he said. Peter gave Heather permission to cartwheel to her heart’s content. As we were heading off, he was laying wet newspaper in a plastic tub. Apparently when you lay flower seeds on the paper, they germinate more quickly.

Across at Petersham Park, Heather and I headed to the middle of the cricket pitch. Her frisbee action wasn’t as good as her cartwheeling, but it improved slightly as we threw and chatted away. She had a ton of questions for me, good and challenging ones too. Like: “What exactly is the “art” part of my project? It looks more like some sort of sociological thing”; and “How long do you think it takes to make connections in the big city?” (she only moved into the ‘sham a month ago); and “Do you think that good architectural design can make for a better sense of community?” These were tough – especially this last one.

For her part, Heather is a hard core cycling fan. She rides all the way to work at North Sydney every day. Her company provides consulting advice for designing sustainable development solutions. I reckon you’d have to be an optimist to work in that field in this city…And she definitely is an optimist.

The light was fading, and Heather had to get back for her shift at the food co-op in Enmore. I, too, had an appointment for a cup of tea with Lucy on Palace Street. I was a bit early, so I sat on the verge reading The Glebe, and waiting for Lucy to come home. Pretty soon she arrived. Where’s Luciana? she asked me. I told her something had come up for Luciana, and explained what a crazy busy life she leads. I was a bit worried how things looked – letting a strange man into the house. I asked if Lucy felt ok about it. “Oh no, it’s fine, I trust you!” she said.

Lucy’s from Chile. She’s been in Petersham since the late ’70s (ie before anyone in Tully and Heather’s house was even born!) Her two children have gone overseas, the daughter in France, the son is finding his roots back in Chile. She misses them a lot. Her husband died a long time ago, and her house feels a bit too big for her. Spanish radio played loudly in the kitchen the whole time we talked. Lucy’s mad about plants. She’s about to graduate from her third certificate in horticulture at TAFE, where she learned to identify hundreds of native plant species. She’s now studying floristry, and thinking to set up a small business from home arranging flowers. “You know, I like to keep learning new things” she said.

I really believe this about her. Lucy did most of the talking while we sipped our tea, but the few times I chimed in with my related experiences, she leaned in and listened intently. I could see she was checking my stories against her existing ways of thinking about the world. For instance, she said that it’s always more fun to travel together with a friend. On the other hand, I said, when you travel alone, sometimes unexpected things happen. She asked for an example.

When I went to China in 1999, I had a single phone number in my pocket. That phone number resulted in lunch with an artist I had never met before, then dinners and tours with an expanding circle of friends, and ended up with me giving a slide show in a radical French(!) bookshop. When you’re travelling in a pair, sometimes you just play it safe and stick together.

We talked about loneliness, and the difficulty of finding a new partner when you have an existing life. You have to find someone who is kind, and good around the house, and good with the kids, and fun to be with. Then, she said, men are often jealous of the love a mother has for her children. But what they don’t understand is that a woman has all kinds of love, in unlimited quantities. She has love for her husband, love for her children, love for her friends, and all these can sit side by side with no problem.

When it was time to leave, Lucy said, “Well, thank you for visiting me. I like you Luca, there is something gentle about you.” I liked her too. I suggested that Lisa and I might visit during the day next week, and look at her garden a bit. She also asked me to send my best to Luciana, who she hoped to see again too.

7 thoughts on “sustainable transport

  1. Alex Broun

    Hi Lucas,

    Great story. I’m reading it at work.

    I work at ACP as a Rugby Journalist. I also write and direct for the theatre. I have two plays coming on soon but they are in Balmain and Woolloomooloo so you won’t be able to come and see them.

    You can check one of them out in this link. (

    My play is The Prince of Brunswick East.

    I also run a short play festival called Short & Sweet – have you heard of that ?

    I think I must be in Petersham because I live just in front of the Park. I think I’m on the right side of West Street – the Petersham side. Go Petersham !

    I have lived in Petersham for almost three years. I used to live with my ex-girlfriend but we broke up and she moved out. But she still lives in Petersham too ! How cool is that.

    You could go and visit her too. She got the cat – Lily – who is really cute but her house is always very messy. Boy she is going to be mad when she reads that.

    You should come and visit – Janine who lives downstairs has big scrabble nights. You should come and play – that would be fun. Last time I played I won – I got 220 points and used all my seven letters in one word to get 50 bonus points.

    You and Lisa could also come and watch rugby with me one night at the Livingstone Hotel. I watch a lot of a rugby as I’m a Rugby Journalist.


  2. Tully

    I was wondering where that pumpkin came from.

    I told some of our hosuemates about your project and now they’re eager to meet you. You (and perhaps your house?) should come over for dinner some time. We love guests.

  3. Ross Stevens

    Hello Lucas,

    I just wanted to say thanks for a nice read. After a day of reports and opinion pieces in the paper, it’s nice to observe the unhurried observations of a different life.

    And Heather is my sister, so it’s nice to hear somebody else say what a special (and unusal) person she is. I don’t see her enough.

    Thanks again, Ross.

  4. B F

    You are a beautiful writer. I just stumbled upon the Story of Petersham and I was amazed to read such a lovely story. My boyfriend used to live in Petersham. I visited him there from Melbourne when we first met. His house was a mess and damp but we sat on the balcony and drank beer and listened to the jets and looked out across the city to the harbour bridge. It was one of the best times of my life.

  5. shortleftleg Post author

    Oh I just remembered one of the things heather said she liked, after making a move in chess. she said “i like watching an ant trying to carry something”.

    -alex, I’d be delighted to watch rugby with you at the Livingstone. Let me know when there’s a match on. ditto for the scrabble, and your ex girlfriend. and apologies for the delay on your ‘sham status. I know you’ve probably been on tenterhooks. With pleasure I can report that you are *definitely* in petersham. I have posted a map of your place, here:

    -tully, we’d love to come for dinner! that’s one of my project dreams “get invited to dinner by neighbours”!! name the night and we’ll be there!

    -thanks for your story, too, B F! I take it you are no longer “local”…

    -and Ross, why don’t you come on out here and visit your sister in the ‘sham?

  6. Tessa

    Hi Lucas,

    My friend Tully told me about this site – it’s cool!

    In fact, I use to live in the house Tully and Heather now live in. I had the room with the balcony, huge, and I could see to the horizon. I found it in February 2005, waiting for my housemates to come back from adventures in South-East Asia (Heather was one of the people, but it was Alanta, her travel buddy, who was the original housemate). 5 of us moved in, and started having lots of parties and intense discussions about law, politics and art, around chocolate on the kitchen table. (This happens when you put law students in the same house as Arts graduates, politicians and theatre directors.) We called ourselves the Petersham Tarts.
    Anyway, when I went to England for a month last July, Tully stayed in my room – and never left. He liked the ‘sham so much, he moved into the Lilting Houses next door, but was with us most nights. As one by one the original housemates (who were also all born in the ’80s) moved out, the house you have now was formed.
    I was at the party a couple of weeks ago, by the way, and it was raucous. I was Daphne, and my boyfriend was Wesley.
    I think I’m about to move back into the ‘sham, however Tully informs me it is technically Stanmore, as I am on the wrong side of the street.

    Yay! this is fun,


    p.s. you have a ‘spello’ in the story about Lucy – you wrote “an radical French bookshop”. Ta.

  7. shortleftleg Post author

    Tessa –
    a great little micro history there. I love it: the “Petersham Tarts”. Houses you’ve lived in carry special resonance for a long time, don’t they?

    And thanks for the spellcheck, eagle-eye! Fixed now!


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